On a 6-mile hike, the former Arizona governor and interior secretary reflects on his career, politics, and why conserving wilderness matters.
By Ian James | Arizona Republic
SEDONA — The rising sun was just starting to light up the tops of the sandstone cliffs when Bruce Babbitt arrived at an empty parking lot, ready to set out on a hike.
He chose a trail he knows and loves, a canyon filled with childhood memories and one of his favorite wilderness areas — a fitting place to meet someone who has been immersed in decisions about preserving wilderness for much of his life.
During eight years as secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, and previously as Arizona’s governor, Babbitt distinguished himself as a Democratic politician who skillfully navigated environmental debates and prioritized the conservation of wildlands, streams and wildlife.
In the 1990s, he played a central role in some of the country’s biggest environmental decisions.
He helped devise a plan to limit logging and protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
He presided over reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
He stood atop a California dam and swung a sledgehammer as he inaugurated a push to take down dams and restore rivers.
He participated in the creation of 19 new national monuments, from Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah to Giant Sequoia in California, as well as five monuments in Arizona.
He could have chosen to wrap up his career when he left office at the end of the Clinton administration in 2001.
But Babbitt has remained actively engaged in issues he cares about. He has traveled frequently to the Amazon to support efforts to protect the rainforest. He worked for former California Gov. Jerry Brown mediating talks on water issues. This year, he joined Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in pressing the state’s Legislature to pass a Colorado River drought plan.
He’s also involved with a nonprofit, the Conservation Lands Foundation, which is fighting in court to challenge President Donald Trump’s decisions to shrink two national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante and the more recently established Bears Ears.
Babbitt continues working, both publicly and behind-the-scenes, on projects where he sees opportunities to protect public lands, preserve water supplies and encourage steps to address climate change.
As he presses for his causes, Babbitt regularly delivers speeches and writes opinion articles. But he doesn’t usually talk publicly at length about his reflections on his life and political career.
I invited Babbitt to join me and two of my colleagues from The Arizona Republic on a hike, suggesting we could talk about a range of topics on the trail. I asked him to name a trail, and he suggested a 6-mile trek along the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest. He said it’s “not a killer hike, but it’s a good workout and we get our feet wet, crossing the stream 10 or 12 times.”